American Wake by Kerrin McFadden 2021

McKadden, a high school teacher in South Burlington, Vermont won the Vermont Book Award with her first volume of poems and this, her third, is a winner as well.  Don’t read these poems if you’re looking for odes to nature or for inspiring feelings of joy.  Her poems are tough to read, challenging in syntax, chronology, and symbolism, but even more difficult in terms of their subject matter.  Irish emigration, lost homes, dead siblings, parents, aunts, and most prominently, her brother, dead of an overdose in Boston after McKadden had returned to Ireland to find her own roots.  Divorce, an abusive ex-husband, a young son, a dead brother who had been adopted by a mother with a ‘hole-in-her-heart’ that had to be fixed before the adoption could take place, and on and on.

McKadden uses a rich variety of tropes such as maps, mirrors, windows, clocks and other means of keeping track of space and time, but what comes through on the page is a deep feeling of sadness, loss, and struggle to find meaning and a place for her life, a life that appears to be continuously blown off course by the storms of reality.  Here’s ‘Moving Again’:

We could make a mobile out of bromeliads, I say,/looking up at our new high ceilings, and my son asks,/what’s a bromeliad? I tell him they don’t need soil/or water to grow—they take what they need from the air./We have just moved to this neighborhood where lawns/and appearances have to be kept up. The platters/are stacked in their narrow cupboards, and his father, again,/is raging at a distance. I remember when possibilities/felt endless, when summer lasted like a great illness./I lower the windows so the summer rain doesn’t come in./My son helps, pausing to smell the metal screens for their/correspondence.  Soon, he will make his own homes./He stops to clarify—they don’t need anything? No, I say./They eat the air.  The can make home anywhere.

This is McKadden—love for her son, fear of abuse, realization that she will eventually lose her son to adulthood, transiency of home, a long summer that is compared to an illness and is characterized by rain.  All of these constantly bubbling emotions threatening to overturn her life as the death of her brother did, but holding on and pushing ahead with faith that there is a better time and place for her.

Powerful poems.